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Landlocked Valley 1st in County in Boat Thefts

Crime: Affluent neighborhoods, proximity to lakes provide near-perfect conditions for crooks, authorities say.

May 12, 1997|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Fernando Valley, long known as an auto theft center, has earned another dubious distinction: it's the boat rip-off capital of Los Angeles.

Authorities say crooks engage in late-night fishing expeditions through Valley neighborhoods, trolling for pricey recreational vessels that sell for as much as $100,000, sometimes more.

With its affluent residential enclaves and proximity to Southern California lakes, the area provides near-perfect conditions for crooks seeking an easy catch. More boats are stolen in the landlocked Valley than at the county's major boating centers, including Marina del Rey, Catalina Island and Castaic Lake.

"The boats are here, so the crooks come to steal them," said Det. Robert Graybill, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department's Auto Theft Task Force in the Valley, which handles boat thefts. "It's the shopping mall effect."

Police say they don't have enough officers or training to prevent the boat thefts from driveways and public storage facilities, a crime that unfolds in only minutes.

Accomplished crooks can quickly and quietly hitch a boat to a truck and haul it to an empty garage or deserted warehouse. There they strip out the engine, seats and other equipment, either to upgrade their own boats or to sell at swap meets and lakes.

Some thieves hide beneath the boat's tarp while they detach engines from the hull and then drag them away.

In the last five years, 369 vessels have been reported stolen in the Valley, accounting for nearly 60% of boat thefts in the city of Los Angeles, according to the state Department of Justice. The stolen vessels comprise one-fifth of the thefts in Los Angeles County, the state's leader in boat thefts.

The figures do not include the hundreds of Jet Skis that also disappear each year, or an unknown number of uninsured vessels that never get reported, authorities say.

"If you leave your boat in your driveway or on the street, it will be stolen," said Stan Vanderburg, a Chatsworth insurance agent who specializes in boat policies. "It's only a matter of time."

Police say the thieves fall into three categories: amateurs, who take the boats on weekend joy rides; semi-professionals, who steal for parts; and professionals, members of organized rings who scout local docks, jotting down home addresses off documents left in vessels, then stealing the boats from neighborhoods days or weeks later.

In some cases, members of the organized rings deliver the vessels to waiting customers in Nevada, Arizona and other states, authorities say. And a small percentage of the thefts are actually schemes to defraud insurance companies.

Adding to the crime lure is the growing demand for the high-powered boat engines by hot rod enthusiasts. The motors, with only minor changes, can easily be dropped into so-called muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Mustangs.

"The engines in a lot of these in-board motors, especially the ski boats, are virtually identical to their automotive counterparts," said Chuck Schifsky, editor of "Car Craft," a monthly magazine of home-built cars. "The boats use carburetors, so when you put an engine in, the equipment fits together."

Police investigators say boat owners often fail to take adequate precautions against theft--a criticism that some boat theft victims willingly accept.

Alan Shepard of North Hollywood is typical.

Shepard used to park his sleek $25,000 bass fishing boat in his driveway with the trailer hitch facing the street. He did not install locks or chain the boat down, despite having alarms on three expensive cars also in the driveway.

On a foggy night in November, the crooks struck, working so quietly that Shepard's two Rottweilers slept undisturbed.

Shepard was stunned when he found his boat missing and angry that he hadn't taken steps to protect his prized possession.

"It was my own stupidity, and I'm the first to admit it," said Shepard, who owns a towing garage in Boyle Heights.

Investigators found Shepard's boat about 10 days later in Van Nuys, near the Ventura Freeway. Thieves had gutted the vessel, stealing the $10,000 outboard motor, instrument gauges, compartment locks, vents and cleats. They carved holes in the stern to rip out the wiring. They also took thousands of dollars worth of fishing rods, life vests and other equipment.

"Obviously, the guys who stole my boat didn't want to go fishing," Shepard said. "It's like they were trying to upgrade an old boat they already had."

Shepard, had insurance, bought a new charcoal gray fishing boat, which he also parks in his driveway. But this time, he has taken several precautions: The trailer is chained to a metal post that is sunk into the ground. Steel cables run through the trailer's wheels to prevent it from moving and a thick lock secures the tip of the hitch. A 1,000-watt flood light goes on whenever anything moves in the driveway.

"If they want this one, they are going to have to work real hard," Shepard said.

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